Economic and Political Weekly, Volume 39, Issue 42, October 16-22, 2004
LIMITS OF LAND ORDER APPROACH TO THE NORTH-EAST
For several decades the decision-makers in Delhi have asked: “Can the Northeast be
saved for India?” Today one hears many in the Northeast asking the same question in reverse
“can the Northeast be saved from the repression it has been suffering for decades?” Both the
questions have the same source, the insurgency or armed struggle that the rulers in Delhi
view only as a law and order issue. To counter it they have assumed extraordinary powers
under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA).
One set of reactions is the blasts in Assam on August 15 and in Dimapur and western
Assam in early October. That is the reaction of a minority. The views of most others were
probably symbolised in July 2004 by a group of women in Imphal in Manipur that bared their
bodies in front of the Assam Rifles camp and displayed placards such as “Indian army take
our flesh” and “Indian army, rape us.” It was their way of saying “enough is enough” after a
30 year old woman was found dead the day after her arrest by the Assam Rifles. They
demanded the repeal of the AFSPA that has been in force in the Northeast as a whole since
1958 and in Manipur since 1980. It comes into force when the State Government declares an
area disturbed and gives extraordinary powers to the armed forces such as allowing them to
arrest a person on suspicion of planning a crime. If she/he is killed and declared a terrorist,
the armed forces are not prosecuted. So they are not accountable to the civilian government.
There lies the source of abuse and of disillusionment with the armed forces. One
knows from the ongoing case in the Supreme Court that more than 2,000 young persons were
killed and cremated anonymously in Punjab during the uprising in that State. The number of
persons arrested and found dead has reached 26 in Manipur alone during 2004. In most cases
the security forces claim that they were killed while trying to escape. That is why many in the
Northeast ask whether they will ever be freed from repression. Most civil society members
who ask this question condemn human rights violations by the underground too. For example
human rights activists are in the forefront of those denouncing the underground for recruiting
child soldiers but they feel that the State as a legally constituted body has greater
responsibility than the underground to protect the people’s rights. In practice violations by
the State keep multiplying and it is against this background that the non-violent struggle led
by 32 organisations is continuing in Manipur. Women are prominent among them.
Women in many communities of the region have a long history of such interventions
and of playing a significant role in times of war. Among the past initiatives the Meitei
women of Manipur who are leading the present movement is nupilan or resistance to the
British rulers exporting rice from Manipur to feed their soldiers by depriving the local people
of their staple food. Today they have formed themselves into meira paibis or torch bearing
women who are in the forefront of peace initiatives. One knows of Naga and Kuki women in
Manipur meeting each other during the ethnic conflict between them in the 1990s in an effort
to stop the killings (Brara 2002: 193-194). When some Naga tribes went to war with another
tribe women from the opposing sides established networks to negotiate peace (Kikon 2002:
The bear bodied demonstration of women in Imphal has to be seen in this context of
both of their sense of despair and as a creative initiative for peace. It was also a mode of
shocking the world into taking notice of their oppression because women have suffered the
most during the years of armed struggle. The attack often comes from the security forces in
the form of rape. The underground too goes against them when for example they pitch their
tent in a village and ask the villagers to feed them. The woman of the house has often to part
with the supplies she had stored to feed the family during the year. And yet, many women’s
groups have continued their peace initiatives, the best known among them being the Naga
Mothers’ Association and the meira paibis.
The Background of the Unrest
However, the Centre tends to view the unrest only as a law and order issue. The
AFSPA has been its response. It thus ignores the causes of the conflict such as the neglect of
the region by the economic decision-makers, encroachment on their land by immigrants,
denigration of their culture and attacks on their identity. The basic cause is the failure of
persons from outside the region who control its economy to invest in industries and the
consequent high unemployment. This failure cannot be attributed to the absence of qualified
personnel because the level of education is high in much of the region. Mr Tarun Gogoi the
Chief Minister of Assam stated in August 2001 that his State had a backlog of 20 lakh
unemployed persons. According to the State’s Economic Survey 2003-2004 the employment
exchanges have 15,71,996 registered job seekers today against 15,24,616 in late 2001 (The
Times of India, 16th June 2004). It is well known that employment exchanges underestimate
unemployment because they exclude the rural and other sections of the informal sector since
most such unemployed persons are not registered (Rayappa 1992: 362-363). So even 20
lakhs may be an underestimate for Assam. The other States would account for at least 10
lakhs more. Thus a minimum of 30 lakhs or 25% of the active workforce are unemployed.
As a result, despite the high level of education, land continues to be their main
livelihood but immigrants encroach on it and cause shortages. The Bangladeshi are one such
immigrant group but not the only one. A much bigger number comes from the Hindi
heartland of Bihar and UP. The number of Bangladesh immigrants is put at about 12 lakhs in
the Northeast (Bhuyan 2002) in an estimated total of 30 lakhs. Common to the Hindi States
and Bangladesh is their feudal system, lack of land reforms and the consequent poverty. Thus
most immigrants are landless agricultural labourers who know cultivation techniques. They
occupy the fertile land of the region, cultivate three crops and prosper. Most people of the
region, on the contrary, have lived in a single crop culture. The zamindari that the British
introduced in Assam and Tripura resulted the sharecropper system. Tenants had to give to the
zamindar anything between half and two thirds of their produce. So they lacked motivation
to go beyond one crop. The hill tribes practised jhum which is limited to a single crop
(Barbora 1998). Another factor is the control of the markets by outsiders who refuse to allow
the local people to prosper. For example, in the 1990s the State Government encouraged
shallow tube well irrigation. This project had many shortcomings but it resulted in a bumper
rice crop in 2000. However, the outsiders in control of the market refused to buy that rice and
the farmers had to sell it at a loss. With it died their motivation to grow three crops.
Many local communities resent the fact that the immigrants prosper on the land they
encroach upon while they themselves are left behind. It has led to many killings. For
example, most attacks in the Karbi Anglong district of Assam have been on the Biharis who
have occupied land there. The insurgency in Tripura is attributed to the influx of Hindu
Bangladeshis who occupied tribal land and reduced their proportion in the population from
58% in 1951 to 28% in 1991. By the late 1960s the indigenous tribals had lost more than
60% of their land to the immigrants. That is when the State announced the Dumbur dam that
submerged 46.34 sq. km of their land, most of it level that is only 28% of the State’s total.
They protested against it but were forced out of their land. By official count it displaced
2,558 families that had pattas. Another 5,500 to 6,500 families depending on the common
property resources were not even counted though they were sustaining themselves on it
according to their customary law. Many attribute to the impoverishment it caused the unrest
in the State that began around the same time. Besides, today urban environmentalists
consider them enemies of nature since their only livelihood alternative is shifting cultivation
in its catchment area which causes environmental degradation (Bhaumik 2003: 84-85).
Thus, land encroachment by immigrants (not immigration in itself) and the refusal of
persons from outside the region to invest in productive jobs are at the basis of the unrest.
Sometimes the conflict is around jobs, for example the Assamese-Bihari tension for 2,000
railway jobs in November 2003 but in most cases it is around land which is their economic
sustenance and the centre of their culture and identity (Fernandes and Pereira 2004: 83-84).
However, in saying that land and jobs are the basis of the conflicts, one cannot simplify the
issue by calling them economic alone. The economic component is crucial but one cannot
ignore the fact that, land and forests are the centre not only of the tribal economy but also of
their culture, religious ethos and very identity. Given their symbiotic relationship with land
and the close link between the natural resources, their culture and identity, the ethnic groups
affected by them view the shortages also as an attack on their identity and view conflicts
around land as defence of their culture, identity and livelihood (Acharya 1990: 71-95).
The conflicts begin with attacks on outsiders and slowly turn into ethnic conflicts
within the region. In the context of shortages caused by encroachment and the failure to
invest in productive jobs every group views the limited land and jobs as its exclusive right.
So each community rewrites its history to claim an indigenous status and exclusive right over
the resources in a given area. Ethnic conflicts are a direct consequence of such hardened
ethnic identities and exclusive claims. Be it the Naga-Kuki conflict in Manipur (Fernandes
and Bharali 2002: 52-55), the Bodo-Santhal (Roy 1995) and Dimasa-Hmar tension in Assam
(The Telegraph, 23rd April 2003) or the Tripura tribal demand for a homeland (Bhaumik
2003: 84) all have their origin in competition for land and jobs and result in massacres or the
Assam-Bihar type of tension. Because of the ethnic consciousness that results from the
conflicts, the local communities take their demands beyond land and jobs to livelihood.
The Centre’s Reaction
However, the response of the Centre has been to reinforce the law and order
machinery and view all unrest as secessionist, not solve these problems. Very little has been
done for employment generation. In 1994 the region had only 166 large and medium
industries. Many of them have closed down or have been declared sick, including all 12 in
Nagaland (Ezung 2003). The other alternative of the well educated youth is jobs in the
administration and they too are declining. However, developments during the last few
decades show that focus on law and order does not solve the problems.
When the AFSPA was enacted in 1958, the Naga resistance force was the main one
and Mizo resistance was building up. Today, Mizoram has had peace for 17 years but the
number of underground outfits has multiplied. There are at least two major Naga outfits,
Assam has units such as United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and groups representing
the Bodo, Dimasa, Karbi, Adivasi and several others. Manipur had two underground groups
when the AFSPA came into force in 1980. Today it has nearly 30 such outfits. There are at
least three such groups in Tripura and two in Meghalaya. One does not always know their
origin. Some of them have an ideology but there are allegations that some others have been
set up by the Central intelligence agencies in order to counter groups with an ideology. Many
others are allegedly purely extortionist groups that use the underground façade to their own
advantage. It should be obvious from the enormous increase in the number of underground
outfits that the AFSPA or a purely law and order view of the issues is not a solution to the
problems of the region. The social, economic and cultural issues have to be tackled.
Secondly, the Centre tends to view the Northeast only as a problem. The people of the
region are different from those of what they call “Mainland” India. Many of them belong to
the Mongoloid stock and are close to the peoples of Southeast Asia. That can give the
Northeast a definite advantage if the difference is used as a gateway to Southeast Asia and
China. Instead, the Centre seems to be obsessed with security and treats this diversity as a
threat and the region only as a buffer zone against China. Within the region a major obstacle
to investment is the inner line permit that prevents even Indians from entering Nagaland,
Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. Only recently have foreign tourists been given entry into
Nagaland but only in groups of four. More than once I have had the experience of the bus I
was travelling in being stopped by the security forces at the Nagaland border and all the
Nagas being searched and their luggage examined. But two of us non-Nagas were not
examined. Thus the local people are treated as foreigners in their own land.
The third step of the Centre is negotiations with individual underground outfits. For
example, the Bodo have two main groups, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland and
the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT). The Centre has negotiated and reached an agreement with
the BLT on a Bodo Territorial Council. It may be a good solution but by ignoring the other
bigger outfit, it has ensured that the agreement will not work. Nagaland has two major
outfits, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac-Muivah) and (Kaplang) NSCN
(IM) and NSCN (K). In the late 1990s the centre signed an agreement with NSCN-IM and
ignored NSCN-K. The group that is ignored is bound to raise its demands higher and make a
permanent solution difficult. The solution would be to negotiate with all the groups together.
Fourthly, the Centre deals with one issue or ethnic group at a time. The problems are
inter-connected. Taking one at a time can go against the others. An example is the 2001
extension of the ceasefire with NSCN-IM to all the Naga inhabited areas in the neighbouring
States. It resulted immediately in a conflict in Manipur where over half of the territory is
inhabited by Naga tribes. The Meitei perceived it as a threat to the territorial integrity of
Manipur. The agitation that followed has become as important a landmark in the history of
resistance in Manipur as the present movement against the AFSPA. These and other
piecemeal actions have in practice alienated all the factions from the Centre.
Fifthly the Centre negotiates with the underground outfits and rehabilitates its cadres
after reaching an agreement. In other cases it rewards those who surrender. For example,
surrendered cadres of the ULFA have been rehabilitated with jobs or plots for small tea
gardens. The BLT cadre are being integrated with the police or paramilitary forces. Besides,
negotiations are only with the underground outfits. The civil society is ignored. A message is
thus given to the youth that those who join the underground will be rehabilitated and
rewarded eventually. That renders the basic issues and civil society irrelevant and
marginalises groups like the Naga Women’s Association that are active in the search for
peace. Human rights groups are even branded anti-national.
That is where one sees the need to re-examine the official as well as civil society
approach to the issues facing the Northeast. Treating the issue only as one of law and order is
not the solution. The economic and other causes of insurgency have to be dealt with.
Productive employment is essential and the land issue cannot be ignored. But they have to be
taken together with the remaining social, cultural and identity issues. One has also to
recognise that the people of the region have lost confidence in the Centre so Delhi has to
begin with confidence-building measures with the communities of the region and establish its
credibility with them. It has to begin to trust its people and treat its cultures and communities
with respect. If confidence-building measures are possible with Pakistan, one sees no reason
why they should not be attempted with the people of the Northeast.
That also involves treating the whole region as one. Dealing with one underground
group at a time can only increase distrust between the ethnic communities of the region and
make them feel that the Centre is following a divide and rule policy in the region or even that
it needs conflicts as a training ground for low intensity warfare. One has to add, however,
that it is not going to be easy to deal with all the groups together because of suspicion among
them. For a united approach to succeed the Centre has to take a long-term view and not
search for immediate solutions by dealing with one group at a time. Such an approach cannot
succeed in the long run.
A possible solution is for the Centre to tread the difficult path of negotiating with all
the groups simultaneously and go beyond the approach of treating it as a question of the
Centre versus the rest. Instead the Centre has to give the message that it is ready to negotiate
with the region as whole if the groups first negotiate among themselves and come to some
agreement and then deal with the Centre as a totality. That requires the involvement of the
civil society elements that have been keeping inter ethnic group peace networks alive during
the last several decades of conflicts. It may take five or more years for the warring groups to
come together but it has to be viewed as investment in long-term peace with justice.
That is where economic issues find their place. Peace cannot be built on the absence
of war alone but has to be based on justice. Conditions have, therefore, to be created in
favour of the people of the region taking control of economic decisions. Immigration cannot
be ignored but one has to desist from the temptation to give it a communal colour by
focusing on the Bangladeshi alone. The fact that poverty pushes the people of Bangladesh,
Bihar and UP out of their region has to be acknowledged. But one cannot ignore the fact that,
it creates serious problems in the region. The ideal is to attempt the integrated development
of the whole region including Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Northeast and Myanmar. Obviously it
is an ideal and cannot be attained overnight. But confidence building measures would include
loud thinking about this long-term possibility. At present the effort is only to increase trade
with China and Southeast Asia. It is the first step but decisions about it pass from the
Northeast to Southeast Asia through Delhi. If the Centre is serious about confidence-building
measures, Delhi can go to Southeast Asia through the Northeast and treat the ethnic
difference not as a problem but as an opportunity for ongoing relations with this part of Asia.
Basic to the approach is a move away from the present law and order view of the
problems confronting the region. National security is important but genuine security is found
not merely in defending the physical boundaries but primarily in gaining the confidence of its
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